Where’s Hugo? Chavez's Silence Raises Questions in Venezuela

June 24, 2011 - 5:29 AM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is one of the world's most talkative leaders and his prolonged silence and seclusion in Cuba following surgery there two weeks ago is fueling speculation about his health.

Government officials have offered repeated assurances that Chavez is recovering well in Havana, but many Venezuelans are wondering if they are getting the true story.

Venezuelans are accustomed to near daily speeches and television appearances by Chavez that can last several hours, even when he's traveling abroad.

Yet nobody has heard him speak since he talked by telephone with Venezuelan state television on June 12, saying he was quickly recovering from surgery two days earlier for a pelvic abscess. He said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness.

The only glimpse of Chavez came when the Cuban government released photos of the Venezuelan leader at the hospital with Fidel Castro and Cuban President Raul Castro on June 17. In one, Chavez seems to lean on Raul Castro for support.

Venezuelan officials have limited their comments on Chavez's health to saying only that he's recuperating and have provided few details. It is not even clear exactly when he will return to Venezuela.

The paucity of information has fed a stream of serious speculation about the socialist president's condition as well as outlandish gossip on both sides of Venezuela's deep political divide.

Some people suspect Chavez has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness such as prostate or colon cancer while others claim doctors botched liposuction surgery and he suffered an infection.

Even before his pelvic surgery, a knee injury forced him to postpone his trip to Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba. These problems have fed speculation about the 56-year-old president's health at a time when Venezuela is grappling with recurring electricity shortages and a deadly prison standoff.

Authorities have sought to quash such talk.

"In response to all the rumors, I can give faith that the president is recovering in a satisfactory manner," Adan Chavez, one of the leader's brothers who is a state governor, told state television Wednesday. "The president is a strong man."

Adan Chavez added that "it's not clear" when his younger brother would return home, but said the president is expected to leave Cuba within 10 to 12 days.

Those comments did little to calm the consternation of Chavez supporters or appease government critics who accuse officials of trying to dupe Venezuelans.

"I fear his condition could be worse then than they want to tell us, but I trust in God the president isn't in danger," said Magalis Gonzalez, a street vendor who was among about 100 Chavez supporters who attended a prayer meeting in downtown Caracas on Thursday to wish the president a speedy recovery.

The president's opponents have criticized government officials for providing few details on Chavez's health and raised concerns he may not be fit to continue his duties as president. The latter idea was rejected by Vice President Elias Jaua, who said Chavez is attending to his day-to-day government duties while recuperating.

In an editorial published Thursday, the opposition-siding newspaper El Nacional complained that "incompetent Cabinet ministers are turning this into a complete mystery or a state secret that creates uncertainty and anxiety within the population."

"Nobody understands why the state of the president's health is being hidden," it said.

Officials say Chavez underwent surgery June 10 for a pelvic abscess, which is an accumulation of pus that can have various causes, including infection or surgical complications. Neither Chavez nor doctors treating him have disclosed what caused the abscess.

Dr. Demetrios Braddock, an associate professor of pathology at Yale University's School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, said surgery for a pelvic abscess is not usually difficult although complications can arise if doctors discover a digestive disease such as diverticulitis.

Diverticulitis, which is most commonly found in the large intestine, involves the formation of pouches on the outside of the colon. Braddock said the disease can be potentially life-threatening if a perforation of the colonic wall occurs, allowing feces to pass into the pelvic cavity and causing infections.

"Any number of things could be happening," Braddock said in a telephone interview. "It's impossible to know for sure without being familiar with this particular case."